Great Question: When is it okay to leave a church?

When is it okay, even healthy, to leave a church? I'm struggling at my church, but I've attended it for a long time and feel guilty about possibly looking for another congregation.

I applaud you for even pondering this question. All too often God's people switch loyalties from one church to another with the same amount of deliberation they give to what kind of fast food they'll eat for lunch! Yet choosing the gathering where we will worship God corporately, engage with other Christians, and invest our gifts is a serious matter that warrants prayerful consideration.

What Does God Say About This?

Although the Bible doesn't have a definitive "now's the right time to run for the door" list about leaving a church, it does paint a clear picture of what a community of faith should look like:

"Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God's people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God's Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won't be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church." (Ephesians 4:11-15, NLT)

If the teaching, worship, programs, and activities of the church you're attending aren't really helping people grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ and/or your church structure recognizes someone other than Christ as its ultimate authority, then it's healthy to start moving toward the exit sign.

But if the main reason you're thinking about splitting is personal rather than theological—perhaps you've been wounded by someone in your congregation or on your church staff—make every effort to work through the conflict with the people involved before stalking away with a chip on your shoulder (Matthew 18:15-17). It's also a good idea to seek the advice of a few mature, unbiased Christians instead of making a rash decision (Proverbs 13:10).

And of course, prayer is essential. If we'll listen to God, he promises to direct our steps explicitly, to tell us when to turn to the left and when to turn to the right (Isaiah 30:20-22). Finally, if the Holy Spirit does give you the green light to look for another place to worship, guard your tongue on the way out and don't cause a reckless ruckus (Proverbs 6:19; 1 Corinthians 1:10).

How Does This Affect Me?

One of my favorite observations about church is found in Steve Brown's book, A Scandalous Freedom:

My friend Mike Glodo, the stated clerk of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, said that he went to Jesus once to complain about the church. He said to Jesus: "They are a mess. They are uncommitted, mean, and lazy. They don't care what you say or even about you and your honor. They are a stiff-necked people, and they don't deserve your love."
"Mike," Jesus answered, "be careful … she's my wife!"

Makes you think twice about bolting from or talking trash about a crew of Christians, doesn't it? We would all do well to remember that while every Christian church is a flawed institution—full of grumbling, bumbling sinners like us—they are precious to God (Ephesians 5:25-27) and the foundational "pipe" he uses to pump grace into a world dying of thirst (1 Timothy 3:15).

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Lisa Harper has a masters of theological studies from Covenant Theological Seminary. She's a speaker and author of numerous books, including A Perfect Mess: Why You Don't Have to Worry About Being Good Enough for God (WaterBrook). www.lisaharper.net

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